[posted 09.20.2001]


DID YOU EVER NOTICE that when there’s a national tragedy or disaster or moment everyone feels the need to relay to each other where they were when they heard about it? I’m not sure why we as human beings do this. Sometimes I think it’s because it’s the only way to make sure we really saw what we saw, heard what we heard. It’s a small step in staying sane.

It was Tuesday morning, 8:30 a.m. Central Standard Time. I woke up, dragged myself into the living room and flopped on the couch to watch The Golden Girls on the Lifetime Network. It was the episode where Stan is staying with the girls because he’s just had surgery. It was the scene where he walks into the kitchen wearing Dorothy’s bathrobe. Please don’t laugh. These are the little things I need to remember to make sure I really saw what happened next.

I had seen this Golden Girls episode and I knew all the dialogue. So I flipped the channel to CNN. The World Trade Center towers were on fire.

I thought that was strange.

I checked all the major networks. All showed the same picture: the plumes of smoke, the black clouds. You know the words I’m choosing because they’ve already been used a million times.

I thought we would put out the fire and everything would be all right. I’m an American. We always think everything is going to be all right. Actually, we always think everything is going to be fantastic.

I went to brush my teeth. As I was brushing, in the background I heard the CNN anchor explain that the footage they were showing was of the “second plane hitting the tower.” I spit into the sink and walked into the living room still holding my toothbrush. I sat on the couch. I didn’t move until the towers collapsed and when they did I put my hands over my mouth in that instinctual move of shock and slid down the side of the couch. There was no one to scream at.

I started calling people. My boyfriend, my colleague and friend down the street, my father at work. I needed to make sure I was seeing what I was seeing. I needed to make sure I was sane. Unbelievably, my father had not yet heard of what had happened. When I told him about the planes he asked, “What kind of planes?” and I said, “The kind with people on them.”

For the briefest of moments I thought, really and truly and honestly, that the government had created a mass simulation of a catastrophe just to see how we would all respond. Like some sort of gigantic test of the Emergency Broadcast System. I really believed this for about five seconds.

I got to work but no one was working. Everyone was crowded into one room watching CNN. My editor told us to go home if we felt “uncomfortable.” I couldn’t figure out how to feel any other way, so I left. On the way home I stopped by a Stop ‘n’ Go to purchase — inexplicably — Doritos, a 20-ounce bottle of Diet Coke and several tins of Fancy Feast cat food. I spent the day at my coworker Lauren’s house, watching the same obscene images you watched. I tried calling everyone I knew in New York. I could not get through to any of them until that night, when I found out they were safe. One friend, who’d had a scheduled appointment in the World Trade Center that afternoon, reached me late that evening. He is proudly one of the most cynical people I know, but that night we found each other sputtering “I love you.” Then the phones cut out.

That night I went to a prayer vigil at the small Methodist church down the street. I’m not a Methodist but I didn’t care. The church is located in a part of town where there are a lot of gay men, and during the service it felt like the sanctuary was just me and all the gay men in Houston. When we sang, we sounded beautiful together.

The next day I just happened to have had a scheduled appointment with my shrink, a wonderful woman with a slight Texas twang. During the session, the shrink cried more than I did.

It was all anybody could talk about.

I was supposed to go camping with my boyfriend Kevin that weekend. We were supposed to leave Friday morning. It was Thursday night when I lost it. It was the CNN reporter interviewing those poor people clutching their pathetic Missing Persons posters. I wanted to say, “My God! Don’t you know they’re not missing, they’re dead?” I wanted to say this so that I wouldn’t have to hear anymore of them say, “He’s got a seven-month-old baby…” or “She’s getting married in December…” or “He called me right before the collapse….”

The reporter interviewing these people started crying in earnest. Not just a Peter Jennings choke-up, no, but an honest-to-God sob, tears streaming down her face. I called Kevin and I could not breathe because I was crying so hard.

“I think that I’m going to be sick,” I said.

The next morning was the national day of prayer and remembrance. As Kevin and I drove through the rolling lush beauty of Texas hill country on our five-hour trip to the campgrounds, I saw the GOD BLESS AMERICA signs everywhere I turned. On dot-matrix beer ads, or printed out letter by letter on hotel marquees and McDonald’s signs. One gas station ad said: GOD BLESS AMERICASALE ON DR PEPPER, PEPSI, COKE. And that felt so American I wanted to cry again. Normally, I’m the kind of person who thinks the firewall between church and state should be so strong we shouldn’t even have “In God We Trust” on our money. But that day, I could have cared less. Let them have as much God as they need, I thought. I think I need God too.

During the whole drive on Friday, I felt compelled to ask Kevin to pull over so I could go into a church. Any church, it didn’t matter. Instead, we played Woody Guthrie songs on the stereo, and Duke Ellington, too. Those seemed like prayers anyway.

The camping trip was a respite, but not much of one. Each day after a morning hike through some of the most gorgeous land this nation has to offer, we’d drive 25 miles to the nearest town to buy the Austin American-Statesman. Then we’d bring it back to the campsite and read it over beer or rum or whiskey and each afternoon while reading I’d just get drunk so I could maybe fall asleep and not have to think about it for a while.

They keep saying how this could be my generation’s finest hour. Our call to arms. To what, I am still not sure. And anyway, I worry we’re too lazy, too spoiled a generation to do much of anything at all. Our early-‘90s generational angst and flannel-wearing malaise seem laughable now. Our zippy dotcom mania seems perverted. We’ve been raised on Ritalin and Little Debbie snack cakes and videos of smart bombs shooting down chimneys. We don’t know the first fucking thing about war.

Last night I had a dream I was in my childhood church and a man carrying a cartoonishly large black gun walked in and stood on the altar and started shooting it into the balcony. In the dream, everybody just stood there.

“It’s an assault rifle, you know,” said the older woman next to me. I jumped over the woman with the strength I only have in dreams and pushed my way through a crowd of people just standing there, staring at the man with the gun. I ran through the doors into the parking lot where there were a lot of other people standing outside, milling about.

“There’s a man in there with a gun and I think he’s a terrorist,” I said to anybody who would listen to me. But everyone just stood there, like they weren’t surprised.

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jennifer mathieu writes for houston’s alternative weekly, the press.